Kurds are a people native to the area around the confluence of Iraq, Iran, and Turkey. Though most are nominally Muslim, Hurds speak their own language and possess culture and traditions distinct from the Arabs of the Middle East. Their visible differences from other Middle Eastern peoples often make them a target of ethnic hatred and racially motivated violence.
Iraqi Kurds fared poorly under Saddam Hussein’s regime. They often suffered persecution and force relocation earlier in the 20 century, and their situation did not improve when Saddam took power in 1979. Kurds sided with Iran in its war against Iraq in the 1980s, and Saddam’s Defense Minister became notorious as “Chemical Ali” for his use of nerve and blister agents against the Kurdish population.
The Iraq-Iran truce in 1988 did not apply to attacks on Kurdish settlements, and Iraq’s military continued to campaign against the Kurds for the next few years. After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the United Nations established a “no-fly zone” over northern Iraq, establishing a de facto Kurdish state. Since the US invasion of Iraq, the Kurdistan Region Government has become a recognized province of northern Iraq, with limited autonomy.
Kurdish settlements often support a militia known as the peshmerga (Death is before us). Unlike most Middle Eastern armed forces, the Kurds allow women to join and serve in the military. The peshmerga has particularly thrived in the last few years; many of the stockpiles of the defeated Iraqi military have found their way into Kurdish hands, including tens of thousands of AK-74s assault rifles and MP5 submachine guns, and even a handful of T-55 tanks.
The peshmerga is also divided into several different regional and political factions. In the late 1990s, a minor war began between the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan- both nominally socialist democracy parties. The 2003 invasion of Iraq prompted the two factions to unite and join the US against the Iraqi government, but the alliance may not continue forever in the absence of a common enemy.
Kurds also continue to struggle to establish their own nations in neighboring Iran, Turkey, and Syria. All three countries have ongoing efforts to disarm and forcibly assimilate Kurds; in turn, supporting Kurdish independence, local peshmerga carry out terror attacks-often with weapons smuggled in from Iraqi Kurdistan. Historically, Turkey has been particularly vigorous in attempting to resolve the “Kurdish problem,” and several times has launched cross-border strikes against Kurds in northern Iraq.